The connection is not unusual for environmental activists, but it is definitely new territory for trade unionists. “Climate protection? Count me in. My train is full every day, ”says a poster with a photo of the tram driver Susanne Friedrich from Bremen. The motif is part of an upcoming campaign by the Verdi service union.

The organization is breaking new ground in the upcoming collective bargaining for employees in local public transport (public transport): they link the upcoming industrial dispute with the climate crisis. Another premiere: in their struggle, the trade unionists are looking for cooperation with the climate movement.

They are supported by activists from Fridays for Future and, according to their own statements, by other environmental organizations. “Our goal is to work together with them to put more pressure on climate protection and for the turnaround in traffic,” says Christine Behle, Vice Chairman of Verdi. “There will only be a turnaround in traffic with more employees in public transport, and you can only win that if working conditions improve,” Behle is convinced.

According to Verdi, around 130,000 employees are currently employed by public transport companies nationwide, around half of whom work as drivers of buses and trains. Every second person will retire by 2030. In the same period, however, public transport is to be massively expanded, and the number of passengers should increase by 30 percent. That is at least the declared goal of the federal government.

Earnings vary widely from region to region

According to the Association of German Transport Companies, companies are finding it increasingly difficult to attract employees. “No salary wants low salaries and unfavorable working conditions,” says trade unionist Behle. Wages and conditions are negotiated in 17 different wage districts, the differences between the regions are large. The number of vacation days fluctuates between 26 and 30. The starting salary in Brandenburg is € 2,093.68, in Hessen € 2,191.75 and in Baden-Wurttemberg € 2,913.02.

In Thuringia there are already 38-hour weeks, elsewhere 39 hours are still the norm. On the other hand, the following applies everywhere: bus and train drivers do not get any surcharges for the stressful shift shifts – but in some places the employees in the workshops do.

Representatives of the Fridays for Future movement are also convinced that without better working conditions for employees in public transport, there will be no traffic change and no reduction in Co 2– will give emissions in traffic. “If you want to move away from private transport, you have to develop alternatives,” says Rhonda Koch from the Fridays for Future working group on trade union dialogue. “Good working conditions for the employees are the prerequisite for us to be able to expand public transport.” Verdi approached the climate activists six months ago, Koch reveals. After that, there were always talks. Finally, in addition to the trade union dialogue working group, many representatives from other local groups came to a joint meeting at the end of February to discuss a common approach to the upcoming collective bargaining.

The rapprochement between Verdi and the climate protectors is by no means a matter of course. Because Verdi also represents the employees of power plants, who are against a quick coal phase-out and are sometimes very critical of climate protection. Behle did not want to reveal which organizations are involved alongside the Fridays for Future due to ongoing discussions.

Lots of unpaid overtime

In April, the union plans to launch the campaign to flank the upcoming labor dispute. On July 1, Verdi first terminated the collective agreements in all federal states at the same time in order to be able to negotiate synchronously across the country and, if necessary, to strike.

This gives the union great pressure. “Public transport is one of Verdi’s best-organized areas,” says Behle. Between 50 and 90 percent of the workforce are union members.

At the end of March, the union wants to determine the areas for which uniform specifications are to be made with the tariff partners. This includes regulations to compensate for overtime. “This is a huge issue for the employees,” says Behle. Due to the shortage of staff, they often have to work a lot of overtime, which they then postpone. “We want common rules for this,” says Behle. Verdi explicitly considers strikes to enforce the demands. “There will be great strike activity if employers don’t move,” she says.

“Traffic Friday” for future

The Association of Local Employers’ Associations (VKA) also sees this coming. “Indeed, there are fears that industrial action in local public transport will occur throughout Germany because after the general collective agreements expire, the peace obligation ends,” said VKA spokeswoman Daniela Wegner.

However, the salaries for employees at local public transport companies are already significantly higher than in the private transport sector. The market share of private providers in public transport is at least 36 percent. The current wage round does not apply to their employees. Because of the comparatively higher wages, subsidiaries have been established in the past that have paid lower wages, says Wegner. Therefore, Verdi should “not overdo it in summer”. “Local transport is regularly deficient and is cross-financed in the municipality,” she says. “Personnel costs naturally play a major role here.”

Verdi and the activists from Fridays for Future are also aware that the municipalities have too little money for buses and trains. “The municipalities cannot bear the burden alone, which is why more federal money must flow into local transport,” activist Koch demands. Around half of the public transport is financed from ticket revenue, the rest comes from the public purse. The German government’s climate package, for example, provides billions for the expansion of the infrastructure, but only from 2025 and not for more staff and higher wages. “We need a social understanding that public transport has to be publicly financed more,” says trade unionist Behle.

For the activists of Fridays for Future, the upcoming industrial dispute is a new project that may give them a further boost. In a number of cities, there are considerations to support local public transport workers, Rhonda Koch reports: “We are considering calling for a nationwide ‘Traffic Friday’ in June or July.”

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